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Time for Dems to Panic?

A Gallup poll released yesterday showed the Republicans with a 4-point lead on the House generic ballot — a reversal from October, when the Democrats had maintained a 2-point lead. Making matters worse for Democrats, this was a poll of registered voters — not the likely voter samples that have generally contained worse news for them because of the apparent Republican edge in enthusiasm.

So — is it time for Democrats to push the panic button? Or is this poll some kind of outlier?

Probably a little of both. There’s no obvious flaw in the Gallup poll — the question wording is as standard as it gets, the sample size is decent (894 people), and Gallup is a classy and reliable pollster. Scenarios in which Democrats lose a large number of seats in the House are fairly likely, and scenarios in which they lose their majority are quite possible.

Still, I find it unlikely that there’s been quite as substantial a shift as Gallup suggests. Rasmussen also shows significant problems for the Democrats, giving the Republicans a 6-point lead in their generic ballot using their likely voter model. That’s somewhat worse than the Republican leads of 1 to 5 points that they had shown since Labor Day, although Rasmussen has generally painted a pessimistic case for the Democrats, with Team Red polling as high as +7 on two occasions in August.

Pew, on the other hand, shows the Democrats at a +5 — actually a little better than the +1 they polled in their last generic ballot test in late August. And YouGov has the Dems at a +9 — showing essentially no trend for the past several months — although as an Internet-based poll and one that samples all adults rather than registered or likely voters, I’m not sure how seriously that data point should be taken.

Meanwhile, there’s been no obvious trend in Presidential approval — Barack Obama’s numbers have been essentially unchanged for three months now. On the other hand, some of the latest Senate numbers have not been kind to the Democrats, with Quinnipiac bringing a double-dose of bad news in Ohio and Connecticut today.

Gallup’s poll was also conducted entirely after the elections of last Tuesday, which none of the other polls were. But that can cut both ways. On the one hand, the poll is the most recent; on the other, the elections were generally regarded as a ‘win’ for the Republicans, giving them a couple of days of favorable news coverage, and it’s not atypical to see a (temporary, usually) bounce in a party or candidate’s numbers if polling is conducted during such a period.

My 30,000-foot view is that between the pressures of the jobs situation and the health care debate, the Democrats are in fairly bad shape. But, there’s a long way to go before next year, and their situation does not seem to be quite as bad as it was in August.

Certainly, if I were the Democrats, I’d be adopting a fairly defensive posture, putting money into defending seats — especially those held by non-Blue Dog incumbents — rather than getting cute and trying to pick off more than a handful of potentially vulnerable Republican seats. I’d also be thinking about policies — like a jobs package and financial regulation — that tap a little bit into the populist spirit and might result in somewhat awkward Republican positioning.

So, should the Democrats be panicking? Yeah, maybe a little. But the fundamentals — particularly the poor labor situation and the Republican enthusiasm advantage — should be the reasons for their concern, rather than the results of any one particular poll.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.